SPECIAL NOTE: pPamela was kind enough to inform me in Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forums of recent conditions in Bukit Lawang that are not reflected in this travel report. The November, 2003 flash flood that struck the village was a major catastrophe, a tragedy that killed over 300 people and destroyed or damaged many riverside buildings. As such, things are very different now than when we were there prior to the disaster. For example, the orangutan rehabilitation facility is no longer operating although the feeding platforms are still in place.
I try not to recommend hotels, restaurants or transport modes in any of my reports for reasons like this - it has been many years. However, because I am writing from memory, as if consulting a diary, I occasionally slip into the present tense and can give the impression that my observations are still relevant. Usually this isn't a problem, but I strongly urge readers to search elsewhere on the internet for current information (I always provide a few links) and view my reports as visual impressions and historical accounts published for inspirational purposes.
We were on the fabled island of Sumatra now, having been carried across from Georgetown, Malaysia at great speed on a loud, smoke-belching, passenger boat. Even with soldiers brandishing automatic weapons at the dockside border office, clearing Indonesian customs was a breeze for these two pale Canadians.
Right outside, mini-vans were waiting to snag travellers. We found one heading for Bukit Lawang, home of a noted orangutan rehabilitation center. (*See clarification above.) We meandered at first through the dust, smoke and noise of Medan - this trip also a supply run for our drivers. With relief, we finally hit the highway. It took us inland about 75 kms. as a crow might fly, needing three hours for this short distance as the roads became narrower and more pitted going uphill into the rainforest. Gunung Leuser National Park.
We passed a well-worked countryside of logging operations, rubber plantations and small farms, arriving at a makeshift town as night fell. This was Bukit Lawang, where the road ends and the wilderness begins.
Our bus fare included a night's lodging as part of an arrangement with a local innkeeper, but we stayed only one night at the roadside establishment, preferring to find a riverside place away from vehicle traffic. This meant hiking a two-meter-wide path upriver into the village between slapped-together business structures and patchwork dwellings. A charming ambience, like navigating the world's most elaborate tree fort.
One quickly adapts to the campground atmosphere. Lodgings are cheap, the food is fresh and good, locals are smiling and the setting is wondrous. A happy jumble of commerce along a tropical river, jungle rising up steeply on both sides. The swift-moving water has plenty of twists and turns, where deep swimmable pools form away from the current, allowing impromptu dips from nearby patios.
When we weren't trekking in the jungle, days were spent relaxing in the shade with a book, meeting new European friends or tubing down the wild Bohorok River from upstream of the village. (Safety Tip: keep your rear end elevated while negotiating the rocky passages.)
Above: At the end of the main path is the canoe-ferry, where a guide operates a rope system to bring you across to the grounds of the orangutan rehabilitation center. Below: a view of the town from the trail leading up to the feeding platform. The building with the long balcony in the middle left is where we stayed.
Deforestation in Sumatra and on the island of Borneo has had devastating consequences for their orangutan populations. As these remarkable primates migrate from their now-compromised forest homes to nearby plantations in search of food, the adults are often killed by protective farmers while the infants are either left to die or are sold illegally to traders for reselling as pets in the cities of Asia. Animal rescue groups, when they can successfully recapture these orphan orangutans, work to reaquaint them to their natural habitat. It's not a simple process, though, as the apes must undergo an indoctrination of sorts into the ways of the jungle. For this, rehabilitation centers have been established. Bukit Lawang is the home of one of these.
The village sprung up in response to the Center's popularity. Western travellers come for stays at the facility, which offers the best and most expensive lodgings in the village (providing revenue) or they stay across the river where local Sumatrans have built tourist facilities to handle the overflow. Latter visitors also help subsidize the program by paying for 'feeding time' hikes. These are short, uphill climbs above the center's buildings to a platform where rangers bring food to the orangutans who aren't quite ready to make it on their own. Although these apes, when wild, with their incredible strength, can be dangerous when angry, the ones we met had been raised with people and were very gentle.
One silly woman ignored the regulation against bringing food and subsequently had her backpack snatched away from her body in a lightning-fast manouever by one of the apes who dropped down from the trees unseen. She wasn't hurt, fortunately, so we didn't have to feel bad laughing at the sight of the triumphant ape eating her cookies high above us.
We spent one hot morning visiting an open-air market on the highway side of town. An old gentleman insisted I take his picture and I was happy to capture the solemn pose. Further down, peppers and peppercorns.
Spending time in the village, eventually you will be hounded by local youth until you agree to let one of them take you on a jungle trek. Fair is fair, it's just business, and not a bad hike once you're signed up, although with some staggering climbs. There are no switchbacks here, just straight up or down when confronting elevation.
Below: One of our jungle guides perched on a forest giant; macacques who followed our progress hoping for food; and one of the beautiful Thomas Leaf species, who are shy but will come close enough when enticed by a banana.
Special note: I would feel disingenuous describing this paradise without mentioning the great tragedy that struck Bukit Lawang eight months after we were there. In November of 2003, a flash flood brought hundreds of thousands of logs from unregulated upstream logging operations crashing through the town. About 300 people were killed and most of the buildings along the river were destroyed. From what I can gather the center is operating again and the town has recovered somewhat. If anyone reading has a story about the aftermath or knowledge of how things are now, please leave a comment.
This post is dedicated to the victims of the disaster.
In The Crater Of A Supervolcano
In order to travel from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba, we had to return by mini-van to Sumatra's dusty, chaotic capital, Medan and find transport south. Still jumpy from our first driver's laissez-faire approach to road manners, we climbed aboard an even dodgier vehicle for the journey's second leg into the interior highlands. It was a top-heavy schoolbus-like affair with rusted floorboards and a yowling diesel engine. Fortunately, the operator practiced a sedate and incremental philosophy where twisty mountain roads were concerned - thus the relatively short drive required the rest of the day, but our knuckles weren't so white when it was over. He even stopped along the way to let us stretch our legs and drink in the spectacular vista below (note active volcano in the far distance).
Lake Toba (English for Danau Toba) "is the largest volcanic lake in the world. In addition, it is the site of a supervolcanic eruption that occurred 74,000 years ago, a massive climate-changing event." (Wikipedia).
It was a calmer place when we got there. In fact, the recent Bali bombing, the burgeoning SARS crisis and the build-up to the Iraq invasion conspired to rob Indonesia of its tourist trade in early 2003. The result was an almost deserted feel in the resort zone on Samosir Island's Tuktuk peninsula.
We chose The Carolina for lodging. The general situation was making all hotels very affordable, so we didn't have to shell out much for a cottage at this semi-luxurious lakeside property. We enjoyed a balcony on the water, animist iconography, a lovingly tended floral landscape and a jetty on a little bay for swimming in the lake's deep waters.
The weather was cool during our few days here, which seemed odd being so close to the equator, but is rather common, we were told, at this elevation on the eastern slope of Sumatra's central ridge. After the climbing, swimming and rafting of Bukit Lawang, we were happy to just chill out and catch up on some reading.
Not forgetting Nasi Goreng and Mi Goreng, traditional rice and noodle dishes, a most popular menu item in Indonesia is a plate of French Fries with ketchup, made with fresh-cut potatoes. This is no doubt a culinary holdover from Dutch colonial times. We shared this plate one morning before renting a scooter and hitting the paved trails of Samosir Island.
In Indonesia, as in other east Asian countries, you drive on the left. This can be disconcerting for westerners, especially the first time you make a right turn at a busy intersection, but it soon becomes second nature. The narrow road we travelled here was lonely - mostly other motorbikes and a few Toyota jeeps.
These gnarly long-horned cattle are ubiquitous on the island, seemingly at large, but actually tethered to a stake in the ground.
The traditional societies around Danau Toba are of the Batak ethnic group. At left is one of their distinctively styled dwellings. These were to be seen all along the Samosir road. Also prevalent were Christian shrines, as a large number of Bataks were converted years ago to a version of Dutch Calvinism.
The Batak still perform pre-European rituals as a tourist draw with dancing and a beast of burden. The band played from the balcony with dancers and a trussed-up cow in the compound below. (Sorry, no good pictures of the dancing.)
Finally, a few more pictures to round out the article. As you can see, this is a rough, impoverished part of the world.